AS Bernard Tomic took his master class from Federer, and Leyton Hewitt faded from Djokovic’s relentless pressure, I heard and read again the lament that we don’t seem to be producing the tennis champions of yesteryear.
As so often in Australia, when people make judgments like this there is an implied fault. Someone is to blame. Let’s find them, and deal with them, and then we’ll return to past glory.
I don’t think there is anyone to blame, either as an individual or as an organisation. But if you want a simple explanation, then we have lost some advantages we once had: lots of tennis courts, lots of sunshine, and a most democratic attitude to tennis – meaning that anyone could play, and it didn’t cost much.
I started playing tennis in about 1945, at the Reid courts in Canberra, and at Ainslie Primary, where there was (and still is) a tarred court. The school had racquets, and we kids could borrow them. We knew how to get the nets at the Reid Club; the price was that we put them back, and we did.
A few years later, in Armidale, we could play on a variety of courts, one at the back of the Methodist church, one in somebody’s backyard, four at our school.
It cost a few dollars to join the tennis club, which had dozens of junior members. I ball-boyed once for a doubles exhibition in which John Bromwich and Ken McGregor played Mervyn Rose and Rex Hartwig. All of them won major titles, mostly in doubles.
What happened? Well, Australia got more prosperous, television took over some of the leisure time that once went to sport. We discovered surfing. The backyard tennis courts made way for blocks of home units. Other sports, such as soccer, became important.
Sport moved from being a mainly amateur activity to one where the best performers could make a great deal of money. New sports appeared. One of them was squash and there were a lot of squash players who had a tennis background.
The world changed. As a 15-year-old in Armidale, I could point to perhaps a dozen sports that were played on an organised basis in the town. Today’s Australian Sports Commission, unheard of in the 1950s, made grants of over $120 million last financial year to 53 sports.
We are not the only country at all to place a high value on sporting excellence, finding the best young ones, and funding their development. And tennis has been a sport where any country can get ahead with relatively little money: a few good coaches, good courts, a selection system and intense development.
Switzerland was perhaps an odd country to have won the America’s Cup, given that it is entirely landlocked. But Roger Federer’s great record in tennis is not strange at all. Switzerland is rich, and has a fine tennis development system. Marc Rosset, another Swiss, won the 1992 Olympic Games gold medal in tennis.
Tennis is now a truly international sport, and it will not be long before the Chinese demonstrate their own interest. At the moment most of the names on the results board in the Australian Open seem to have an Eastern European origin – and that applies even to some of our own players – Tomic, Jarmila Gajdozova, Jelena Dokic and Anastasia Rodionova.
In five years, who knows? Much as I like tennis, I cannot be upset at our “failure” to win our own Australian Open. We do pretty well across the domain of sport. And there’s much more to life than sport, anyway.Don Aitkin, political scientist and historian, served as vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002.